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Wells Fargo sets out into the wireless frontier

The big U.S. bank launches wireless banking services that will let customers transfer funds and check balances via a handheld device or cellular phone.

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Wells Fargo boards the wireless bandwagon
Pamela Reed, vice president of Consumer Internet Services Group, Wells Fargo Bank
Wells Fargo, a company that has come a long way from its days of transferring money by stagecoach, launched wireless banking operations Wednesday.

The San Francisco-based bank, which said its "Wells Wireless" service is the first such nationwide offering by a major financial institution, will let customers transfer funds and monitor balances and transaction history using Palm VII handhelds or Sprint PCS mobile phones.

Some of the Internet's most popular services are finance-related, such as paying bills, transferring money and trading stocks. But some analysts question whether customers will choose to conduct such transactions via wireless devices.

"I don't know that banking on a tiny handheld computer screen is that much more useful than calling the bank," said Aaron McPherson, a research analyst with IDC.

McPherson also said he wondered how often a consumer might need wireless banking services. "How often are people going to need to do this stuff on the road?"

Like Internet companies, banks are seeking ways to take advantage of wireless technology and create catchy new applications. Many have seen mixed results. McPherson said Wells Fargo's telephone banking service already offers the same type of options that are found in Wells Wireless.

James Van Dyke, a senior analyst with New York-based Jupiter Media Metrix, said that while wireless services may not attract a mass audience--at least for now--they may help banks retain a desirable customer base.

"The people who bank online are more affluent and tend to be more loyal," Van Dyke said. "Giving them options in the way they do their banking is going to help Wells Fargo keep these kinds of existing customers."

Wells Wireless is available to the company's consumer and small-business customers. Wells Fargo, among the first big banks to go online, says it has 2.5 million online customers.

Bank of America has already unveiled wireless services in select U.S. cities.